A controversial proposal to bury nuclear waste a half mile from Lake Huron’s shoreline in Ontario is proceeding over indigenous objections in a plan that has repercussions on both sides of the U.S.–Canada border.
Opposition to the plan, which would inter low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste about 2,230 feet underground in solid rock, is sparking opposition from Indigenous Peoples and U.S. politicians alike.
“We have a long list of fears, legitimate fears in our community about these facilities, interaction with our rights, our interests and our way of life,” said Saugeen Ojibwe Nation Chief Randall Kahgee to Indian Country Today Media Network.
The Saugeen Ojibwe is one of several indigenous communities opposing the application of Ontario Power Generation for a license to store nuclear waste in an underground facility. Ontario Power, a public company owned by the provincial government, is one of the largest power generators in North America. It wants to construct a deep geologic repository—akin to a mine shaft—for storing low and intermediate-level nuclear waste within the municipality of Kincardine. The repository would be located at an existing nuclear site known as the Bruce Generating Station, where there is already a nuclear waste-management facility. The waste in question is stored there above-ground, or in shallow pits.
A three-member joint review panel appointed by the Canadian Nuclear Regulator, which oversees nuclear projects in Canada, wrapped up weeks of hearings at the end of October. The panel received submissions from disparate parties ranging from the public, to non-profit organizations, to indigenous groups and U.S. politicians. The panel will report to Canada's environment ministry after reviewing the testimony and documents, and the federal government will issue the final decision sometime in the spring.
Kincardine agreed to host the waste in return for $35.7 million that Ontario Power will pay the town and some neighboring communities over 30 years. The facility would be about 2,300 feet (680 meters) below ground, built to store low and intermediate-level nuclear waste from the power generator’s nuclear plants all over the province. Materials include the ashes of items used at nuclear facilities such as mops, clothes, floor sweepings and gloves, according to the Canadian Press. Intermediate-level waste comprises things like filters, resins and reactor components. The site has been studied and analyzed by engineers, geologists, geoscientists and hydrologists and is safe for this purpose, Ontario Power officials told ICTMN.
“This is 450-million-year-old rock where we propose to store the low and intermediate waste,” said company spokesperson Neal Kelly. “It can be safely stored, and there are multiple, natural barriers around it.”
Company experts predict the rock will remain stable, which means the risk of radioactive leaks from the site is minute. The area is not known for earthquakes. Nor does it hold any resource potential, which eliminates the likelihood of people digging in the area in the future, Kelly said.
But this is not enough for Kahgee, whose Saugeen Ojibwe Nation lies on the shores of Lake Huron.
“We've been very careful how we've maneuvered ourselves with respect to this project,” said Kahgee. “Our people should not have to shoulder the burden for the industry forever. That is something that is not contemplated in our treaties.”
The Saugeen Ojibway Nation said they were never even consulted about construction of the Bruce Generating Station in the 1960s, despite its being located on their traditional territory. Bruce Power, the generating station's parent company, is the outfit that two years ago proposed to ship defunct radioactive steam generators by boat through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway to Sweden for recycling.
Kahgee, who made three submissions to the joint review panel, said new issues kept arising out of the hearings, such as Ontario Power’s desire to eventually store decommissioned waste there. But Kelly said the company would have to undergo another round of regulatory hearings to do so.
But that is just what alarms Kahgee, and it only validates his community's longstanding fears about Ontario Power’s intentions. Ontario Power’s president vowed not to put a shovel in the ground without Saugeen Ojibwe approval. The company has also agreed to deal with past grievances.
Stop The Great Lakes Nuclear Dump, a non-profit organization, has also spoken out against the project, collecting nearly 42,000 signatures in an online petition by late November. Notable signatories included reknowned Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, Democratic Michigan State Senator Hoon-Yung Hopwood and Farley Mowat, a Canadian author. The organization has several concerns, said spokesperson Beverly Fernandaz, foremost among them being the site’s proximity to North America's greatest fresh water supply, depended upon by 40 million people in two countries.
“A bulk of [Ontario Power’s] outreach was in the local communities,” she said, most of whose residents work for Ontario Power or Bruce Power, or are retirees receiving a salary or pension from the nuclear industry.
Moreover, Ontario Power did not inform New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Quebec or other Ontario communities outside of Bruce County, Fernandez said. However, Ontario Power has held hundreds of briefings over the past seven years, Kelly countered. Hearings or no, the opposition is strong in Michigan, which lies on the other side of Lake Huron from Ontario.
"Neither the U.S. nor Canada can afford the risk of polluting the Great Lakes with toxic nuclear waste," U.S. Representatives Dan Kildee, Sander Levin, John Dingell and Gary Peters of Michigan said in a letter submitted to the panel, according to the Canadian Press.
These echo the concerns of the Saugeen Ojibwe.
“We do not think there's a sufficient record in front of the panel to make the recommendation for this project to proceed,” said Kahgee.
But while his First Nation doesn't appear willing to store nuclear waste, other areas seem a little more open to the idea. Recently four communities in northwestern Ontario received $400,000 from Nuclear Waste Management Organization for finishing the first round of study into becoming possible storage sites.